The Best American Short Stories of 1969 / Martha Foley and David Burnett, eds.

This book smells like old books should. The yellowed pages emit the wonderful musty smell peculiar to old books. These days a lot of books are published on acid-free paper, and I wonder how they’ll smell in 30 years. Though mass marker paperbacks aren’t published that way. I want my house to smell like this book.

Cover of The Best American Short Stories of 1969
The Eldest Child, Maeve Brennan
This short story, only 8 pages long, gives a glimpse of Delia and Martin Bagot shortly after their firstborn dies. Delia retreats to the bedroom, waving off brusquely the attempts by Martin to comfort her. Delia seems to think Martin feels little, and Martin figures Delia’s antics as resulting from trying to act the part of the distraught mother.
Play Like I’m Sheriff, Jack Cady
I did a quick Google search on Jack Cady like I do with all the authors that I review. Turns out he was somewhat of a local, and wrote speculative fiction as well as conventional fiction. He won a Nebula even. This story is contemporary fiction though. A lonely man walks the streets of an Indiana town. He’s lonely. His wife has left him, and he’s filled with regrets. A lonely woman joins him, and asks him to play make-believe with her. Talk to each other as if they meant something to each other. Act as if. There’s lonesome all over. Awesome line!
Murphy’s Xmas, Mark Costello
Murphy is divorced from his ex-wife, but spending Christmas near her and his son, Michael. He worries about his current girlfriend Annie leaving him, and quarrels with his father over leaving his ex-wife. Seems to mostly be about setting a mood of anguish, and it does that well. Costello does do some interesting things with the line breaks, but I’m not sure why. The effect is lost on me.
Walking Wounded, John Bart Gerald
John Bart Gerald spent much of the 60s as a reserve medical specialist but never was called to Vietnam. This story is a night in the life of a medic handling the returning wounded from Vietnam. It’s moving, despite my having read and seen numerous war is hell works over the years. I think it works partially because of its simplicity and brevity.
The Foreigner in the Blood, Mary Gray Hughes
Clara Rasmussen commits her father, famed psychologist Leon Esteban, to an institution for the aged and senile after he fails to recognize himself in mirrors. Still sharp generally, he deteriorates and Rasmussen must wrestle with the schadenfreude until on an outing he gets playful skillfully evading her attempts to get him to return to the institution.
The Boy in the Green Hat, Norma Klein
An advertising executive gets worried when his wife, previously hospitalized for mental issues, seems to imagine a boy in a green hat following her and their son Avram.
Happiness, Mary Lavin
I wonder a bit what the requirements are for a story to be an American story. Mary Lavin lived from age 10 on in Ireland, though she was born in Massachusetts. Is it American if the writer lives in the U.S.? Is it American if the author is an American? Who is an American? Anyway… This is a very autobiographical story about a widow who raised three kids and a friendship with a priest, as told from the perspective of one of her older girls. Her mother keeps her focus on retaining happiness, though it’s hard for me to see much happiness in her life. It’s hectic. It’s strenuous. She takes care to differentiate happiness from pain and other detrimental conditions. In her view it’s possible to have both pain and happiness at the same time. However, nothing Lavin describes about the woman’s life is a description of happiness, from what i can tell. Some critical writing on the story makes it out to be a work that is exploring the nature of communication; what did Vera Traske mean by happiness and what did her children take her to mean by it. If it is, this is one of the reasons why I don’t get literature, as the academics get it.
The Boat, Alistair MacLeod
I loved this story about a family living in Nova Scota. The father is a lobsterman and a fisherman, the mother keeps the house. A number of older sisters and the narrator, the youngest and a boy, round out the household. His father works long hours, but spends most evenings laying in bed, reading, smoking, and listening to the radio. His mother detests books. The girls all end up working in the tourist restaurant, marrying tourist men, and moving away. His mother feels abandoned. He loves his father and decides to join him on the boat, seeing the sacrifice his father made and wanting to do the same for him. Just an awesome story and wonderful writing to tell it.
The Day the Flowers Came, David Madden
J. D. Hindle, an insurance executive, wakes up in a hungover stupor to a flower delivery of condolences for the death of his wife and children. Only thing is, no one has told him they’ve died, so he doesn’t believe it. He’s pretty helpless without them too, at least domestically.
Pictures of Fidelman, Bernard Malamud
What the hell?!??! Someone please explain this story to me like the digging artist in the story had to explain his art to someone.
Porkchops with Whiskey and Ice Cream, Matthew W. McGregor
A young boy accompanies his father when they visit the father’s friend Ned working in the boiler room of a building. There, his father, Ned, and two other men drink whiskey, tell tales, and decide to cook up some pork chops Ned has procured on a shovel in the coal furnace. All a way of coping with the Depression. Nice lovely little story. Too bad I can’t find much in the way of references to him online, cause I’d love to read more by him.
Gold Coast, James Alan McPherson
A writer with potential, Robert takes a job as a janitor in a building near Harvard. The previous janitor, still living in the building, is his supervisor. You’ve got building politics. You’ve got town vs. academics. You’ve got black vs. white vs. Irish vs Jew. You’ve got young vs. old. All wrapped up in one little story. It’s awesome.
The Inheritance of Emmy One Horse, John R. Milton
Samual Big Medicine, formerly the medicine man for an Indian tribe but now a crazy old man, is exiled from the tribe living under a bridge waging war against the white man. He casts various spells to cause cars driving over the bridge to crash.
By the River, Joyce Carol Oates
Like every other author in this collection, this is the first story I’ve ever read by Joyce Carol Oates. I can see why she’s had such a long career after reading this story. The story begins with Helen sitting at the bus station, returning home after living away from the country town where she grew up. Her father is coming to pick her up. She left her husband and families to live in the city with a man who sweet-talked her into running away with him. She’s back now and looking for comfort in her father, who she’s always turned to. But the story isn’t really about her, though it’s told from her point of view. It’s about her father and his quest for respect from the people of the town who looked through him for many years. Helen married Paul, the son of one of the local farmers with money, but still ran away from him.
The Visitation, Nancy Pelletier Pansing
So far, this is my favorite story in the collection. Five more to go though, so by the time I finish the list that could change. Perhaps it’s because this story hits close to home for me. Hazel and Randolph McClure live alone. The story begins with Hazel waking up in a stupor in the living room, having quite the hangover. Randolph, the Colonel, is passed out in bed. Neither functions well. A letter arrives announcing the impending visit from Emily, the woman who was to marry their son Randolph Jr. Randolph Jr. died in Korea and Emily married another man, but for a time the families kept contact. Hazel hurriedly tries to pull herself and the Colonel together for the visit. It’s never quite clear, even to Hazel, when the drinking took on a life of its own. And Emily’s imminent arrival contrasts her life with what she wants it to be.
Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, Sylvia Plath
I didn’t get this one. A woman works in a psych ward. She collects the dreams of patients and writes them down. Not for her job. For herself. She’s an assistant secretary or something. Except she’s not supposed to be copying dreams and doesn’t want to get caught. Then at the end I think it turns out she’s really a patient. Although I’m not sure.
Paper Poppy, Miriam Rugel
A woman’s relationship with her increasingly gay acting hairdresser unravels as he becomes unhinged, bringing to the woman’s mind an incident where she once kissed a woman.
The Tea Bowl of Ninsei Nomura, Margaret Shipley
After a long career, Furman Powell retires and takes up gardening… in the nude, to the chagrin of his wife. Visitors are mostly shocked, except for a local girl working for the church. She acts as if nothing is amiss when she offers him tracts for a donation, which, having no pockets, he must return to the house to get. His wife encourages to put something on for the trip back out, but he thinks the visitor would be insulted at this point. A nice quirky little story.
The Colony, Isaac Bashevis Singer
The narrator visits a peasant colony in Argentina filled with Russian Jews and comments on life there.
Benjamen Burning, Joyce Madelon Winslow
Whoa! This is good. Benjamen is the youngest boy of an observant Jewish family. One day Benjamen pretends to be an Havdalah candle until he burns out. A cute game, the family thinks. The next he is a Yarzeit candle on the way home from a visit with an aunt and uncle in the country, who unfortunately (according to Benjamen’s father) are not observant Jews. He holds his arms up and won’t move them and won’t eat until the wick burns out. A few days after that he becomes a menorah, and won’t eat for eight days. The family becomes increasingly upset, but the father feels like a failure at even the suggestion of a shrink and won’t agree to it. Even the oldest brother comes home from college to assist. Finally Benjamen stops burning, but he is sick and taken to the hospital. Just an awesome story!

All in all, not bad for my first reading of a collection of contemporary short fiction (as opposed to science fiction). I notice that writers and professors feature in a couple of stories. I think some English professors probably ought to step a bit further away from their own professions for their subject material. And the collections confirms my inability to get a lot of experimental fiction, for want of a better word.

One Response

More in Anthologies (6 of 12 articles)